Perdue Farms: Making Chicken Processing More Humane
Keeping chickens’ stress levels low is good business for Perdue Farms. The calmer the bird, the easier it is to process, the fewer bruises and abrasions it has, the better it tastes.
“Also, it’s the right thing to do,” says Diana Souder, director of corporate communications and brand PR.
To reduce the stress, Perdue invested $22 million in new technology to build the first-of-its-kind, controlled atmosphere stunning (CAS) system and live bird handling process at its Milford facility.
With the CAS system, birds are introduced to increasing levels of carbon dioxide as they travel in crates through a dark, five-section tunnel. The carbon dioxide calms and then sedates the chickens, bringing them ultimately to an irreversible loss of consciousness prior to processing.
“The birds transition easily from conscious to unconscious,” says Dean Walston, director of operations at the Milford Facility. Windows into the tunnel show the birds standing, then sitting and finally lying down as they go through the system. The percentage of oxygen vs. carbon dioxide is monitored on computer screens throughout the process.
Before using the CAS system, the birds were stunned using an inefficient and sometimes ineffective method of electrical stunning. The processing room was kept dark to help keep the birds calm. Dust stirred up by chickens flapping their wings after ineffective stunning created potential respiratory problems for the workers. The new processing room is brightly lit.
“Since implementing the CAS system, we’re seeing measurable poultry welfare improvements throughout the process, as well as improvements in product quality,” says Bruce Stewart-Brown, senior vice president of food safety, quality and live production. “The birds stay calm and are never handled when conscious.”
The CAS is one piece of an overall technology upgrade at Perdue as part of an extensive program to advance animal care. The other part of the system takes place on the farms, where a newer, more sanitary crate system is used to transport birds in covered trucks. Air temperature of the crates during transport can be monitored remotely and adjusted as necessary by opening and closing vents on the truck.
On arrival, the crates are taken to a fully enclosed, temperature-controlled de-stressing area prior to processing. Because the crates are larger than those previously used, more chickens can be moved at one time, allowing forklift operators to move more slowly so birds do not become startled.
Perdue is also testing mechanical poultry catching machinery, a system of conveyor belts that move through the chicken house quietly and quickly to get the birds to the crates.
Using all the new systems, theoretically, the birds could go from chick to processing plant without ever being touched by human hands.
“It’s much easier on the catcher, on the chicken and on the farm,” says Walston. The system became fully operational in late 2019 in Milford. Over the course of several years, Perdue plans to convert all of its processing plants to CAS systems.